This Turn: Washington’s Spies review contains spoilers.
Turn Season 3 Episode 10
At the end of the previous episode of Turn: Washington’s Spies, both Maj. John André (JJ Feild) and Abraham Woodhull (Jamie Bell) were in enemy custody, caught in the act of conspiring against their Revolutionary War enemies while in civilian clothing. The opening scene of the show’s season finale gives us one more reminder of the punishment for that crime: it depicts the hanging of Nathan Hale in October 1776.
The season wrap-up, written by producer Craig Silverstein and directed by veteran Andrew McCarthy, then uses a technique we’ve seen in almost every episode in recent weeks: rapid cutting between scenes on opposite sides of the war, highlighting parallels between the two spying operations.
Within the American lines, the issues are as laid out in history books. André has been caught dead to rights. He admits to his mission. The remaining questions are whether he might be exchanged for someone held by the British or, if that can’t be worked out, whether he will be executed by firing squad rather than the more painful and humiliating hanging. (In the eighteenth century, hangmen did not calculate how far condemned people had to drop for a noose to break their necks, killing them quickly. Instead, most hanged convicts slowly strangled to death on the gallows, offering longer entertainment for the crowds.)
In contrast, in Setauket events proceed like nothing in any history book. Judge Richard Woodhull (Kevin R. McNally) convinces Maj. John Graves Simcoe (Samuel Roukin) that Abe deserves a fair trial before being hanged. The two men toss legal dictums at each other, but all that really matters is contriving the most dramatic confrontation. Thus, the judge prosecutes his own son, Abe barely tries to defend himself, and Simcoe serves as both witness and director of the court proceedings.
As Peggy Arnold, left behind in West Point by her defecting husband, Ksenia Solo gets to let loose finally. Her hair hanging down and her gown torn, she wails at Gen. George Washington (Ian Kahn) that he’s come to steal her baby. That encounter is well documented; historians disagree about whether Arnold was truly hysterical or acting emotionally in order to disconcert the commander and distract him from going after her and her husband. If anything, the Turn version is too short. The show also has Peggy stick around to watch her former lover André’s sentence and to have a final conversation with Maj. Benjamin Tallmadge (Seth Numrich), showing what he learned from his own affair this season.
Peggy Arnold’s hysteria is a good example of how Turn can whisk together details and gaps in the historical record to produce enhanced storytelling. This episode also includes a clever callback to the Nathan Hale hanging based on the fact that there are two different versions of Hale’s last words. When Turn has built on the annals of America like that, the result is an “Easter egg” for viewers who know the history.
On the other hand, when the show tells stories that have no foundation in the past, they have to be extra entertaining on their own. That brings me to what I find is the series’s biggest dramatic deficit: the Woodhull family at the center. Past seasons have already shown us that Abe feels guilty for starting a New York City riot in which his older brother Thomas was killed while serving as a British army officer. Out of that guilt Abe married his brother’s fiancée, Mary (Meegan Warner), and had a child named Thomas—though he also pursues an affair with his childhood love, Anna Strong (Heather Lind). That backstory arises again in this episode at a crucial time, and it still explains too much and not enough.
When Bell made his international breakthrough as a young actor in Billy Elliot, sullen inarticulateness made sense for that character. Bell’s physical acting and that final audition scene were welcome revelations of what was going on inside the lad’s head. The same tight-lipped approach has never struck me as right for Abraham Woodhull, a former law student hatching schemes and manipulating others out of deep, if hidden, political fervor. On top of that we have Abe’s grumpy father, more interested in winning the war within the family than the real war all around them, and his loose cannon of a wife.
Whether it’s how those characters are written and how they’re portrayed, they have rarely felt convincing or compelling to me. Especially when Silverstein is scripting, characters in Turn are not subtle about stating their motivations and desires. Too many such statements from the Woodhulls have simply left me unmoved. Other characters such as Robert Rogers and Edmund Hewlett (neither appearing in this finale) are outlandish types, quite unlike their historical analogues, but at least they have seemed consistent and entertaining in their way.
As for the overall Turn series, this finale brings a sense of closure to most storylines, even if only one character’s story completely ends. André’s braid makes a return appearance. We see young Cicero (Darren Alford) get into the major’s papers bound with red ribbon, so portentously displayed in this season’s first episode. And the people of Setauket are saved from Maj. Simcoe, albeit through the intercession of a character who, while established in past episodes, has hardly been a major figure.
Is there room for another season of Turn if the AMC network wants? Perhaps. The finale ends with the Culper Ring still in operation, now with a new, angry nemesis in Brig. Gen. Benedict Arnold (Owain Yeoman) of the British army. Simcoe, Hewlett, and Rogers are still out there, all holding significant knowledge about the ring. A season could be built around the 1781 Yorktown campaign, perhaps after a gap year, just as this one was built around Arnold’s betrayal. But aside from Capt. Caleb Brewster’s personal life, there really aren’t a lot of questions about the main characters left unaddressed.
J. L. Bell is the author of The Road to Concord: How Four Stolen Cannon Ignited the Revolutionary War (Westholme, 2016). In 2012 he completed a study of Gen. George Washington’s first campaign of the Revolutionary War, which included new findings about the commander-in-chief’s first successes and failures in espionage. Bell maintains the Boston1775.net blog, which offers daily doses of history, analysis, and unabashed gossip about the start of the American Revolution in New England. He is also an associate editor of the Journal of the American Revolution and an assistant editor of the Colonial Comics anthologies (Fulcrum).